If you are thinking of writing a novel – an undertaking which I do not, incidentally, recommend – then you could do worse than read Solutions for Novelists by Sol Stein.
Solutions for Novelists was published in the UK in 1999, and is based on an earlier work, How to Grow a Novel. The UK edition is priced on the cover at £12.99, but I bought a copy in Wimborne market for £1, so it is presumably being remaindered.
The book’s subtitle is ‘Secrets of a master editor’ and Sol Stein certainly has a long history as a fiction editor of the first rank. He worked with James Baldwin, Jack Higgins, and Elia Kazan, among others. He is also the author of nine published novels and at least one play which was performed on Broadway in the 1950s. The novels, by the way, were written while he was head of a publishing firm which turned out an average of a hundred titles a year.
Stein defines a writer as 'someone who cannot not write'. This is a fair enough definition, but it is salutary, I believe, to consider the implications. What the definition means is that a writer is a person who is clearly deranged.
A writer is a person who cannot stop writing? What do we say about people who cannot stop stealing, or cannot stop eating too much, or cannot stop breaking the speed limit? We think they’re nuts, right? If not criminal or immoral, or both. And they are. But Stein trots out his definition of a writer as if belonging to this group of crackpots is something to be proud of. Well it ain’t.
Stein is dead right about many things but dead wrong (in my judgement) about others. For instance, he is right when he says that, in schools and universities, literature is examined more for structure and technique than for effect. And yet the emotional impact of the prose is what the whole business is about. Later Stein says that ‘in fiction, the supreme function is not to convey emotions but to create them in the reader.’ (His italics.) Exactly. Couldn’t put it plainer myself.
Stein is also right when he says that an agent is not going to be interested in your novel unless he is pretty sure that he can sell it fairly quickly for an advance of six figures. Anything less than that is a waste of the agent’s time. Simple arithmetic.
Now for what Sol Stein is wrong about. He quotes the author Erica Jong, apparently with approval, saying that you can make it as a writer ‘if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear.’ This, I’m afraid, is total and complete cobblers. Being honest about what you feel and fear is absolutely no guarantee of success in writing. Conversely, someone who is willing to lie through their teeth about what they ‘feel and fear’ could perfectly well make it to the top without their dishonesty having the slightest impact one way or the other.
Stein is also wrong when he tells us that detailed, hands-on editing made Elia Kazan’s novel The Arrangement into a number-one bestseller. Stein worked with Kazan every day for five months, knocking the book into some sort of shape, and he is justifiably proud of that. But what made The Arrangement a big seller was the fact that it was written by a famous movie director with two Oscars to his name. This meant that every chat show in town was willing to have the author as a guest, and that the book got reviewed absolutely everywhere.
The Arrangement itself, frankly, was run-of-the-mill to dull. More than thirty years ago, when I was young and stupid (as opposed to being old and stupid, yes, I know), I bought a copy to try to figure out what had made it a success. Nowadays I wouldn’t bother. I would know that it was the factors mentioned above. But I’m afraid that I found the book quite unenthralling and never finished it. Its success remained a mystery to me until I learnt a lot more about how the book trade actually works.
On the whole, Solutions for Novelists is a useful and helpful book for anyone who is about to embark on the foolish enterprise of writing full-length fiction. In particular, anyone contemplating taking a one-year course in creative writing should abandon the idea and buy a few books like this one instead. A book such as this is a distillation of such wisdom as has been acquired in a lifetime of work, and that’s what books do best. That’s what they’re for.
Another thing that any as-yet-unpublished writer should consider is Sol Stein’s remarkable statement about the English thriller writer Jack Higgins. In case you haven’t been paying attention, let me remind you that Higgins hit the big time back in the 1970s with a novel called The Eagle Has Landed, and has gone on having big sellers ever since. Stein worked closely with Higgins on a number of books, and since Higgins didn’t like hotels he stayed in Stein’s home; so we must assume that Stein knows his facts. And what he tells us (page 79) is that, before his first big success, Higgins had twenty-four (that’s 24, folks) books published. I knew it was half a dozen but I didn’t know it was twenty-four.
Now just think about that for a minute. First of all, contemplate the amount of work involved; and the determination. And second, contemplate the implications. The implications are that Higgins was a pro. He had written lots of stuff before anyone took any notice of him. He knew how to make things work. But even when he became rich and famous he wasn’t above taking editing from a cunning old bastard like Sol Stein.
All in all, however, Stein makes the business of writing a novel seem extraordinarily complicated, to the extent that it may put some people off. But that’s not a bad thing because there are already far too many people writing novels as it is.